It's no secret that consumer preferences are evolving, and their expectations for companies, brands and products are higher than ever.
This is increasingly true in the tire industry, as more consumers seek tires that meet multiple performance needs without tradeoffs.
Gone are the days when consumers prioritized off-road performance over wear life — they want both, and they want that same tire offering to perform in challenging weather conditions, too.
As the off-road consumer tire segment continues to grow, function is only one part of the equation. Aesthetics also matter.
Consumers today are looking for opportunities to customize their vehicles, and this is bolstering the aftermarket industry.
Lift kits, custom wheels and yes, even tires, are avenues consumers use to personalize their vehicles. To the off-road enthusiast/consumer, tires are more than black and round, and an aggressive tread and sidewall on an off-road tire ensures a vehicle stands out from the crowd.
History repeats itself
Tire designers today must balance an off-road tire's aesthetics with a variety of performance attributes.
This challenge is not new. In fact, the evolution we're seeing in the off-road tire category closely mirrors what we saw previously in the ultra-high-performance (UHP) tire category.
The UHP segment has roots in racing, with sports car drivers looking for race-proven performance in their street vehicle. Over time, consumers wanted to have their cake and eat it, too.
Expectations evolved, and delivering ultra-high grip wasn't enough — it had to be balanced with longer wear life and all-season performance. Tire manufacturers delivered on this ask, and a proliferation of ultra-high-performance tire offerings with all-season capability soon followed. They continue to represent a big portion of the UHP segment today.
Along these same lines, we are seeing increased sophistication and segmentation in the off-road tire category, and it goes beyond traditional all-terrain (A/T) and mud-terrain — or maximum traction — (M/T) offerings.
Take all-terrain tires. In this segment alone, choices abound.
Some A/T tires are designed to spend most of their time on the highway while still delivering off-road capability, while other A/T tires provide a more balanced split of on-highway use and off-road performance.
Like UHP tires, the off-road tire design process grows even more complex due to consumers' desire for year-round performance and longer wear life. As a result, more all-terrain tires today feature the industry's Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake designation, indicating a tire is rated to perform in severe snow conditions.
And to address consumers' desire for longer-lasting performance, manufacturers are differentiating their newest all-terrain offerings with warranties that cover tire performance for a set number of miles.
The story for M/T tires is similar. While drivers with M/T tires may spend more time traveling in dirt, mud, sand and gravel, they don't want to switch their tires when they take on snow conditions. And perhaps most importantly, they expect their tire investment to last multiple seasons.
Delivering on expectations
So, what does all this mean for tire dealers and their sales associates?
The future of the growing off-road tire segment lives at the intersection of form and function, and dealers who tap into this insight have the potential to grow their off-road tire sales.
A one-size-fits-all selling approach won't work, not even when a consumer comes in specifically asking for an off-road tire. To create a positive product experience, selling associates must ask the right questions to uncover the needs of their customers and recommend the right tire.
Here are the top questions to ask:
• For what purpose(s) does the driver use his or her vehicle? Before recommending a certain tire, dealers should be sure to understand how customers use their vehicle. The A/T and M/T tire segments include tires designed for diverse customer preferences, ranging from those looking for a dedicated off-road tire to consumers who want an aggressive aesthetic for their trip around town.
• How often are they traveling off-road? A common misconception is that max-traction tires are best for consumers who go off-road frequently, while all-terrain tires are best for consumers who go off-road only occasionally.
It's not that simple. All-terrain tires would be an appropriate fit for a consumer who goes off-road frequently but tends to stay on easier trails most of the time.
Alternatively, a max-traction tire would be the ideal fit for consumers who go off-road only occasionally, but when they do, they drive on very difficult terrain.
• What are their expectations on wear life?
Understanding this is key to unlocking customer satisfaction and creating loyalty.
Mileage warranties are powerful selling tools and many of today's newest all-terrain tires are backed by compelling warranties.
Mismanaged expectations about treadwear life are a top driver of customer disappointment and it can be avoided by asking this one, simple question: "Do they drive their vehicles in snowy conditions?" Most often, consumers who drive in snow frequently will be most satisfied with an off-road offering that has been tested and certified for severe snow performance.
Steer these consumers toward an all-terrain tire that has the Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake designation. More aggressive off-road enthusiasts in need of a max-traction tire should consider winter tires or a max-traction tire with design features that enhance snow traction.
Future of off-road innovation, design
Evolving consumer needs drive innovation. Enhancements in tire design technologies are enabling manufacturers to bring more advanced products to market with improved speed, efficiency and accuracy.
For example, Bridgestone is leveraging 3D modeling to develop new off-road pattern technology. Virtual models make it easier to test and refine tire technologies and experience how various technologies will interact with one another in practical applications.
Bottom line, demand for max-traction and all-terrain tires will continue to grow as a segment, especially as consumer preferences for the aesthetic and functional appeal of trucks, SUVs and CUVs increase.
Tire manufacturers must continue to work to deliver innovation that anticipates consumer needs and exceeds expectations, particularly as consumers become less willing to compromise.
Mr. Robbins is product manager, consumer replacement, U.S. and Canada for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations. He oversees the Bridgestone and Firestone consumer replacement tire portfolios for CUVs, SUVs and light trucks in the U.S. and Canada.